No fuss tomatoes
Nothing beats the flavour of a freshly picked, home grown tomato. With the right facilities, care and attention, huge crops can be produced over a long period. But what if you don't have the facilities or inclination to grow a full, long season crop?
The answer is Terry Marshall's simple, no-fuss, 'four truss' crop. Read on for details.
The variety's right
The first step is to choose a variety that is easy to grow, will suit the growing conditions and has disease resistance. Consider Shirley which produces heavy bottom trusses on an easy to grow open leaved plant, Alicante, reliable for cold houses or outdoors or Sioux an early, compact variety. For small tasty fruit, grow Gardener's Delight; keep it on the dry side of moist; it too will also grow outdoors. When only one variety is being grown indoors or out, Harbinger is still one of the best. Among the outdoor bush types, Marmande and Super Marmande produce large fleshy tomatoes of good flavour, but they may need staking and tying. Red Alert and Totem are easy, prolific croppers of small sized fruit at home outside in the border or pots. Most of these varieties are available from Organic Gardening Catalogue.
Timing is crucial
Remember that timing, specific to your district, your facilities and your conditions, is crucial. Sowing time should be determined by pollination time. Open tomato flowers will produce viable pollen at temperatures in the mid 60-mid 70°F (17-25°C), with the optimum at 68°F (20°C). To be sure of setting that all important first truss - which can provide 25% of the crop - there must be several days, when the flowers are open, that the temperature is around 70°F (21°C). When these temperatures occur varies enormously. In cold greenhouses it can be from late March to mid May, and early to mid June outdoors. For best results, get to know the temperatures in your area, and plan your sowing accordingly. There is no advantage to an early sowing if there is no viable pollen available to set the fruit. As a guide, a plant in flower by mid April will have come from a seed sown in early February in many districts. Whilst a seed sown mid March will produce a flowering plant some seven weeks later given good conditions.
Sowing the seed
Where small numbers of plants are needed, space sow them. Take a tray of moist seed compost, lightly press the surface level, make holes about 1-2in (3.5-5cm) apart ¼in deep. Select the plump seeds, place one in each hole, cover the seed with compost to surface level and gently water with a fine spray.
If a propagator is available set the thermostat at 68°F (20°C), and cover to exclude light. When the airing cupboard doubles as a propagator check the temperature with a thermometer - the door may need to be left open.
F1 hybrids may germinate in 3-4 days, so check morning and night. Open pollinated varieties may take 7-10 days. Once germinated, grow seedlings in maximum light. Pot them on just before the leaves of the seedlings start to touch each other. Use a 5in (13cm) pot, and a good organic potting compost. This will allow for the development of a good root system. Keep the plants in a light warm position. When the first flowers are in bloom on at least half the plants, move them on. If the weather delays planting there should be enough reserve space and nutrients to "hold" the plant in the pot for another week or ten days.
Growing in the ground
The easiest way to grow tomatoes is directly in the soil. Compared to growing in pots or growing bags, border grown plants are much less likely to suffer from a shortage of water or food, or an imbalance of nutrients. A good fertile organic soil should contain sufficient nutrients to sustain 3-4 trusses of tomatoes from its own resources. If in doubt, work a bucketful of best garden compost or well rotted manure per square yard into the top 8-9in of the greenhouse border or outside bed. If the soil is impoverished but improving, a handful of balanced organic fertiliser will add to the nutrients.
Avoid wet feet
At planting time the soil should be moist but not wet. Tomato plants don't like cold feet. When the soil temperature is below 57°F (14.5°C) they will not make new roots. In cold soil they sit immobile, a ready target for soil fungi. Planting time depends on your soil reaching the right temperature. A soil thermometer can be a worthwhile investment. Outdoor beds prepared during early May and covered with black polythene will be warm enough to plant by the time the last frosts have gone.
Train plants by twisting them up strings. When grown up canes make them stout ones; four trusses can produce a good weight of fruit. Once planted keep the plants moist but not saturated. When time permits give the plants a midday top spray to help set the fruit or in dull weather tap the canes or wires to distribute the pollen.
Tomatoes are gross feeders, but overdoing it is no better than under feeding. A plant growing to 12-16 trusses may, once picking has started, be simultaneously growing and forming stem and leaves, shoots and trusses, flowers and pollen, and setting, swelling and ripening fruit. A truly formidable botanical feat! To do this successfully, such plants need a regular input of nutrients, minerals and trace elements, whereas our "4 truss" plant has more meagre requirements. What you actually supply depends on the quality of your soil; fewer trusses need less feed.
If only four trusses of fruit are required the plant is 'stopped' by pinching out the growing point two leaves after the fourth flower truss. All the plant's energy is now directed into developing, swelling and ripening those four trusses. Whether additional feeding is required to sustain the third or fourth trusses depends on the nutrient quality of the border soil. The simplest method is to top dress the soil with a 2in (5cm) layer of well made compost or well rotted manure after the plants have been stopped, or mulch with a double handful of chopped, wilted comfrey per plant. If needed, one more mulch when the third truss has set should provide sufficient nutrients for the four trusses.
Plants in pots
If you do not have a suitable bed in the greenhouse or garden, then a pot is the best alternative. A four truss plant will crop happily in a 10in (25cm) pot. Choose a suitable organic peat-free growing mix such as Fertile Fibre or Nature's Own. Organic growing bags are also available. When using a home made potting compost, bear in mind that tomatoes like their nutrition in the ratio of two parts potash to one part nitrogen.
Stand the pots in saucers or plastic bowls so that the compost can reabsorb any nutrient rich drainings. Once the second truss has set, the plants will need feeding with liquid comfrey (diluted one part comfrey liquid in 15-20 parts water) at 1 pint (0.5l) per week. An occasional application of seaweed extract at the makers recommended strength will stimulate development and provide minerals and trace elements.
Broadly speaking the more organic matter a soil contains the more water it will hold. Aim to keep the soil moist, not soaked. When weather conditions create high transpiration, plants will need more water. A four truss plant growing in an organic soil needs less water than is recommended for its non organic counterpart. Less water usually means more flavour.
When a plant is `stopped' at four trusses the root system continues to grow, initially supplying more nutrient than is needed. Any shoot in the leaf axils on the stem will quickly grow. Remove them as soon as possible or the top one will grow apace and become a new leading shoot producing unwanted vegetative growth at the expense of the swelling fruit.
Ready for eating
Once a flower has been fertilised, medium sized fruiting varieties, that is those around 8-10 to the pound, will start to ripen after eight weeks of good growing conditions. Beefsteak types need at least 10-14 weeks, often longer before they show colour. The same size/time difference applies to outdoor varieties. Good outdoor growing conditions are so variable; add on at least another 3-4 weeks in all but the most favoured areas. Growing four trusses of well flavoured fruit in a rich organic soil is tomato growing at its easiest and simplest. The health of the plant and the quality and flavour of the fruit make it gardening at its most rewarding.
Tomato seeds, potting composts, growing bags and liquid feeds are all available through Organic Gardening Catalogue